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To get people to reduce their carbon footprint, we need to address inequality


To get people to reduce their carbon footprint, we need to address inequality

In a new paper, researchers argue that campaigns to encourage behavior change should focus on helping people overcome barriers to action—not just providing information.
January 9, 2024

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Awareness of inequality is threaded throughout many conversations about climate change: Some people produce more carbon emissions than others, for example. And some people will be more affected by climate change than others. All of this is widely known and well accepted.

There’s also lots of talk about how people need to change their behavior to reduce their carbon footprint. But in these discussions, acknowledgement of inequality is almost absent. That needs to change, a pair of researchers in the UK argue in a new commentary.

“Modelling studies show that unprecedented reductions in inequalities for both wealth and emissions are necessary to secure decent living conditions within safe planetary boundaries,” Charlotte Kukowski of the University of Cambridge and Emma Garnett of the University of Oxford write in the paper, which appears in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The researchers’ inspiration for the piece came from “being part of policy and research conversations which would come up with big lists of how we could get people—particularly people on lower incomes—living healthier and more sustainable lives, and ‘reducing inequality’ was almost never mentioned,” Garnett says.

That blank spot exists in the scientific literature, too. “We found that research often overemphasizes individual behavior change through targeting individuals’ knowledge, attitudes, or motivation,” says Kukowski. “However, individuals don’t choose their behaviors in isolation.”


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For example, older, poorly insulated houses require more energy to heat than newer homes. These older dwellings are often occupied by renters, many with low incomes. But in the UK, government subsidies to improve insulation are only available to homeowners—so renters have little control over how well insulated their dwelling is.

Inequality can involve not just money but also social resources, time, political influence, or access to low-carbon options. All these forms of inequality mean that it is harder for some people to adopt low-carbon behaviors than it is for others.

For example, plant-based meats are associated with lower carbon emissions but are more costly than animal products. Beans and grains are a cheap source of climate-friendly protein—but may require more time and effort to prepare. Public transit services tend to be poor in rural areas, making low-carbon transportation less feasible for rural populations.

“We need policy to come in and regulate big polluters and oil companies, whose expansion is incompatible with a livable climate, and make it feasible for individuals to change their behavior by making the lower-carbon options like public transport and plant-based diets more available, affordable, attractive and socially acceptable,” Kukowski says.

“We have to reduce inequality to give everyone more equal means to participate in reaching Net Zero,” adds Garnett.

Campaigns to encourage behavior change should focus on helping people overcome barriers to action—not just providing information, the researchers argue. They suggest policies such as improving public transportation and other public services could help reduce barriers to climate action, as could moving to a four-day work week to give people more time (as well as cut spending on high-emission activities such as commuting).

However, research about how inequality intersects with climate-friendly behavior is lacking, the authors note. “It would be great to see work that identifies specific barriers that people face when trying to adapt high-impact behaviors, i.e., those that make the biggest difference in terms of emissions like driving and flying less and adopting largely plant-based diets,” says Kukowski. “This work could then help target these barriers specifically for different population groups to make the changes we need to see as feasible as possible for everyone.”

Source: Kukowski C.A. and E.E. Garnett “Tackling inequality is essential for behaviour change for net zero.” Nature Climate Change 2023.

Image: Shutterstock


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